How to build a quantum workforce


Quantum computing requires an interdisciplinary approach and commitment to teach the principles at a young age, according to a panel of industry experts this week.

Quantum computing concept. Circuit and qubits in background. 3D rendered illustration.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As innovation continues to accelerate, quantum computing has become an increasingly important technology that aims to solve complex problems that today’s supercomputers cannot. Industry experts say quantum has strong potential across multiple industry sectors, including pharma, energy, finance, logistics, manufacturing, and materials.

The top five highest-funded startups in the space have raised about $630 million, comprising about 60% of external funding, according to Lux Research.

The growth means companies are looking to hire applicants for quantum computing jobs and that the country needs to build a quantum workforce. Efforts are underway; earlier this month, more than 5,000 students around the world applied to IBM’s Qiskit Global Summer School for future quantum software developers.

And the National Science Foundation and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy held a workshop in March designed to identify essential concepts to help students engage with quantum information science (QIS).

But industry experts speaking on the topic during an IBM virtual roundtable Wednesday said K-12 students are not being prepared to go to schools with the requisite curriculum to work in this industry. Academia and industry must work in tandem to engage the broadest number of students to get them prepared to do these kinds of jobs that will be needed in the future, said Jeffrey Hammond, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, who moderated the discussion.

It was only four years ago that quantum computing became available in the cloud, giving more people access, noted panelist Abe Asfaw, global lead of quantum education at IBM Quantum.

Quantum on the cloud is removing “a huge barrier to entry from quantum mechanics into a lower level by learning programming,” Asfaw said, adding that his division is building materials to both upskill people and get students engaged at the college and high school levels.

Students in grades K-12 may not know exactly what they want to study, so it’s important to give them research experiences that are varied and teach them about quantum bits, or qubits, at a young age, said panelist Tina Brower-Thomas, education director and executive director for the Center for Integrated Quantum Materials at Howard University.

“The talent is there … but the question is, how do you engage them and keep them interested and see what the benefit is” of quantum computing, she said. “If you get a job in STEM you’ll probably get paid more than other jobs out there. But sometimes we train people and then lose them to the finance industry.”

Students need to be given opportunities to connect research with their education, Brower-Thomas said. “It needs to be real. People need to understand how it’s going to put money in their pocket as a result of the hard work they’re doing to understand the concepts we’re asking them to understand.”

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Bringing quantum computing “into the youngest minds” will get them thinking about programming issues, Asfaw said. It is also important to have “a pipeline of women and people of color. The solution is to push things as close to the high school level [as possible] before we see parts of the pipeline bring barriers.”

Asfaw said IBM is opening up its educators program and the goal is to make sure anyone teaching a quantum computing course can use its resources and connect with other teachers.

Public-private collaboration needed

Panelists were also asked about ways to keep people with cross-disciplinary skills from going to financial firms.
There are concepts needed from electrical engineering and material sciences perspectives, “so there is room for all kinds of engineers and scientists to join the field, but it’s important for us to make the story of where they can contribute,” Asfaw said.

“We’d benefit from more private/public collaboration,” said Brower-Thomas. “If young people see the practical side of what they can do with their education that would give them” the impetus to apply their energies to quantum computing.

She added that if she had a blank check, she would start educating K-12 children “in quantum science, materials, computers—everything quantum. Really engage them and give them an opportunity to work in the industry and I’d invite Ph.D. candidates to come talk to them and tell them about the problems that need solving.”

Otherwise, they will veer toward the fields their friends are studying, said Brower-Thomas, who holds a Ph.D. in materials chemistry.

Panelists were also asked about areas in quantum that “fire people’s imaginations?”

Panelist Javad Shabani, an assistant professor of physics and chair of the Shabani Lab at New York University, said one that he really likes that isn’t mainstream is using quantum computing to make weather predictions.

Asfaw injected a note of caution, saying that when inspiring people, those in the field should not overhype quantum computing and while these systems are excellent at simulations, it needs to be mentioned that quantum computing has limitations.

But the panelists all agreed that the approach to drawing in students has to be interdisciplinary and more resources need to be put into quantum education.

“Although there is a lot of mystery around quantum science and mechanics, it is attainable if we invest now and smartly in how we educate people—whether the K-12 person starting out getting fundamentals or the broader community,” Brower-Thomas said. “Ultimately, there’s a way to approach the education uniquely and we shouldn’t be afraid of that and we should try to meet that challenge.”

“All students, at the end of the day, want to do something exciting, and the partnership between industry and academia will dictate how many students we get,” said Shabani. “If the industry is solving great problems students will want to come—as long as they know there are jobs.” 
 

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